Sunday, December 29, 2013

Setting the Scene

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:13-23:

Today is one of those days when I don’t like the lectionary, because we have to take stories out of order.  Next week we will hear of the arrival of the magi or the wise-men, because next Sunday is Epiphany Sunday, the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men.  But today’s passage tells us what happens after the wise men have already left, and there is so much going on in today’s passage that we could actually cover this for several weeks and still not plumb all the way to the bottom of its depths.  Matthew is doing something very specific in these stories, which are commonly referred to as the flight to Egypt and also as the slaughter of the innocents, that is crucial to understand for the entirety of the telling of his particular gospel message, and since we will be working our way through Matthew’s gospel this year, it’s important to know what Matthew is doing, how he is setting the scene not only for the rest of his gospel but also for who he is saying that Jesus is.

The only two gospels which tell a birth narrative are Matthew and Luke, and their stories are very different from each other because they have different things about Jesus they want to emphasize.  Matthew begins his story with a genealogy.  Compare that to Luke who’s genealogy doesn’t come until the third chapter.  In addition, Luke’s genealogy begins with Joseph, whose father he says was Heli, and he works backward to Adam.  In Matthew, on the other hand, he begins with Abraham, who it should be noted comes from the East, just like the wise men, and works down to Jacob, who is the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.  Now think back, why are Joseph and Jacob significant?  That’s right; Jacob is the father of Joseph back in the story of the patriarchs in Genesis.  And what do we know about Joseph?  He was sold into slavery in Egypt and rises in power there, and what did Joseph become known for?  For interpreting dreams? And then what happens?  He saves his family by bringing them down to Egypt during a famine in Canaan, where they live; they are saved by Joseph, the son of Jacob, who interprets dreams which allows him to save his family by bringing them to Egypt.  And so what has Matthew just told us about this Joseph?  I see some light bulbs going off in your heads.  Joseph, the son of Jacob, has an angel appear to him in a dream, which he then follows, and first marries Mary, then he has another dream, leading his family into Egypt in order to save them, and later a third dream that tells him that it is safe to go back to Israel.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Anonymous In A Crowd

Here is my sermon from Christmas Eve.  The text was Luke 2:1-20:

As we just added Jesus to our nativity, we completed the typical scene found in nearly every nativity, not matter what the material or the subject matter.  There was a list making its way around Facebook this year that purported to list the 50 worst or weirdest nativity sets, which some of you may have seen.  There were the typical weird ones, the dog or cat nativity, ones with frogs and ducks; I think the dragons and the one carved out of spam were the worst, although nothing really says Christmas to me like Jesus made from a shotgun shell.  But as I was thinking about nativity sets, and what sort of spurred the idea for this message, I was thinking of the figures who sort of play critical and important roles in the Christmas story.

If we were to tell the story, or to create a set, without the shepherds, you might ask what was going on where they were, after all they are the ones that the angels make the announcement to as we just heard from Luke.  Likewise if we were to have a nativity scene with the shepherds, but without the magi, also known as the three wise-men, you might also wonder where they were.  We need them because they are the ones who bring the gifts, one of the reasons we share gifts at Christmas.  Now the fact that this combines two different stories, one from Matthew and one from Luke, and that the shepherds and the magi never would have been there at the same time doesn’t matter, we need them in the scene together.  So we need the shepherds, we need the wise-men, of course we need Mary, nothing happens with the mother, and obviously Jesus must be there, they all play critical roles.  But that leaves Joseph.  Is Joseph necessary for this story?  What role does he play?  While he certainly does things, in the words of the old Negro spiritual, he never says a mumbling word.  His role in the scene seems to be to simply be there to look adoringly at a child that is not even his own.  If Joseph wasn’t to be there would it matter?  He is truly anonymous in a crowd.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Love All

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This was the concluding message on the Advent Conspiracy.

Several years ago there was a survey done of parents of teenage children who were attending church.  There were asked a series of questions, but one of those was what events in the lives of their children might make it likely that they would stop attending church.  The number one answer of parents of teenage girls, was for their daughter to become pregnant, and the number one answer for parents of teenage boys, was for their son to be arrested.  I can understand the sentiment behind those answers as they are both less than ideal situations, ones that leave at least a hint of embarrassment and shame.  I can remember that what most struck me about those poll results was how incongruous those results were with the God we worship.  I know that there are churches in which if that was to happen, that many members of the church would turn on those parents or shun them, because that’s just not what happens in the church, but what they have forgotten was that Mary was maybe no older than13-14 when she became pregnant and married Joseph, in other words she was a teenage mother.  I am sure that was shame and embarrassment in Mary’s family, and perhaps some shunning as well.  For a young girl to become pregnant outside of marriage, or for any girl, was a violation of Jewish law, punishable by death.  We are told that when Joseph found out she was pregnant that he wanted to put her away quietly, that is not bring her to public shame, but instead married her after being told what to do by an angel.

So we worship Jesus the son of a teenager mother, and we also worship Jesus who was arrested, tried, found guilty and executed by the state, that is he was a criminal in the eyes of the state and all those who were concerned with upholding law and order.  And so it makes me really wonder about us as a church, about us a Christians, about us as disciples, especially at this time of the year, that parents of teenage children might not feel welcome if their daughter were to become pregnant or their son was to be arrested  Have we so boxed in and constrained the gospel message that it’s become too safe, too palatable?  Have we made Jesus like this this bendable figure, lovely to look at and delightful to play with, but no longer dangerous or radical?  The very symbol we use, that we look at every Sunday, that we wear around our necks, is the means of execution.  Have we sanitized the cross, or lost the scandal of the cross, as Paul said?  And then I wonder, what is the gospel, the good news that we are proclaiming if that is the case?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Give More

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is part three in our series on the Advent Conspiracy.

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Advent Conspiracy and its four pillars of worshipping fully, spending less, giving more and loving all.  I went out looking for this program, or at least something like it, because of a comment that was made after the Thanksgiving sermon I gave five years ago.  I can remember that I said one of the great ironies of Thanksgiving is that we give thanks for what we have, give thanks for God’s blessings in our lives, to basically say that what we have is good, and then we go out the next day to get all the things we just said we didn’t need.  I even made an accurate prediction that it was only a matter of time before stores were open on Thanksgiving, and lo it came to pass.  But in that message I said that there are really only two ways we can look at what we have.

The first is to say that we are not satisfied, that we need more stuff, and if that’s the case then we need to go get more stuff, and we should also try and examine why we feel that way, what purpose is the stuff serving in our lives, what is it trying to fill.  Or, we can say that we are satisfied with what we have, that we don’t need anything else, and if that is the case then we should stop accumulating, stop buying things we don’t truly need.  We need food, but we don’t need a bigger television, we need to put gas in the car, but we don’t need to buy a new car.  The problem is that while we might be able to stop getting more stuff for a little while, sooner or later we would go out and start accumulating again.  It’s somehow ingrained in us, and it’s certainly pushed on us, we are the most marketed to people in the history of the world, and as much as we might like to claim that we are immune to it, the simple truth is we are not.  We proved that last week when you all completed Alka Selzter’s famous commercial “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” which was broadcast in 1972.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Spend Less

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is part two in our series on the Advent Conspiracy.

I want you to think of your favorite Christmas memories.  Do you have something in mind?  I’m willing to bet that most of them have nothing to do with a gift you received, even if you think back to when you were a child.  There may have been a bike you received, or some other special gift stood out, but most of our favorite memories are about times we have spent with family and friends doing things together.  In fact, if I asked you to write down 5-10 things you received for Christmas last year, I bet that few of us would actually be able to complete the list.  According to a recent poll, 62% of people claim that spending time with family is the most important thing to do at Christmas, compared with only 2% who said it was about receiving presents, and yet what do our Christmas celebrations seem to be about, what does a large portion of our time at Christmas seem to be about?  To presents.  We are constantly told that Christmas is all about the gift giving, that it’s all about the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t really be happy, and they won’t think we love them, and our children end up in counseling because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year, and it will all be our fault.  Even though we know these things are not true, year after year we keep doing the same things.

I have been talking about the Advent Conspiracy in churches now for four years and their four pillars which are to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all.  Next week I’ll tell the story of why and how I can across this program, but every year I get one of three responses.  The first is that I don’t understand Christmas or have negative feelings about Christmas and because of that I want to ruin it for everyone else; I am a Grinch who wants to kill Christmas.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas.  I listen to Christmas music in July, we have special sheets and dishes and glassware for Christmas, and last year our house was named best decorated house in Melrose, more than 5200 lights, yes I am that neighbor.  This is not about saying no to Christmas, but instead about saying yes to a doing Christmas differently.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Worship Fully

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is the first in a series on the Advent Conspiracy.

Several years ago I was at the bank on the Monday after Thanksgiving, and the two people in line in front of me where talking about their Thanksgiving holiday.  They were both talking about how much they enjoyed it, and how relaxing it was, and then one asked the other if they were ready for Christmas, and as if it was totally scripted,  the woman said no.  She said she dreaded the whole season, and just couldn’t wait to get through it and be done with the whole thing.  It reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas in which we are told that “the Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season, oh don’t ask why, no one quite knows the reason.”  I’m sure that many of us can identify not just with the woman in the bank, but also even with the Grinch sometimes, although most of us could probably articulate the reasons: busy schedules, crazy shopping, trying to live up to unrealistic expectations, finding the perfect gifts, the kids having two weeks off from school.  Our wishes, like the woman, are often not to enjoy this time of the year, but instead a desire for it all to be done and just to make it through.  Is this how Christmas is supposed to be?  Is this really what Christmas is about?  As you might imagine, I don’t think it is.  I think there is another way to do Christmas.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent means to prepare, and so we take this time to prepare for the coming of the Christ child, and as our candle lighting liturgy said this morning, that is language that we use that Christ is coming, Christ is always coming, and yet Christ is already here as well.  It’s an already and a not quite yet.  Christ is present in the world, and yet we are preparing for Christ to come into the world, as we will say later when we gather for communion: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”  Christmas is like that as well, because Christmas is not just a day, but really a season.  One month, of 1/12 of the year, is set aside to make preparation for and then celebrating Christmas.  While within the church there are other seasons, such as the 40 days of Lent, and Easter is also 50 days, most of us don’t really think of those times, nor do we have up decorations for Easter for 50 days, although I’d be happy with 50 more days of Cadbury cream eggs.  Christmas is already here, we are inundated with it, and Christmas is not yet here as well because we are preparing the way for the coming of the Christ child, and so how do we do that?  How do we prepare for Christmas while approaching Christmas in a fundamentally different way?  That is what we are going to be talking about for the next four weeks, and it begins with worship, as we are called to worship fully.